Prisoners say farming helps them forget for a few hours the despair of being in jail.

Students and teachers of Kerala Agricultural College, Vellayani, took a break from academic pursuits on Thursday to teach the inmates of the Central Prison at Poojappura how to have a green thumb.

Led by Kerala Agricultural University Vice-Chancellor K.R. Viswombharan, they gave prisoners tips on how best to cultivate tomatoes, eggplants, cauliflowers and bitter gourds on the nine acres inside the lofty walls of the 125-year-old jail.

In the past few months, prisoners had converted the hard ground in front of their dormitories and cells to lush green vegetable patches. Students told prisoners how to rotate crops, use green manure, compost and biological pest control methods for better quality yield.

Naushad, a convict serving life term for murder, said snails were a big menace. A teacher advised him to use salt in minimal quantities to keep the snails at bay. The best option was to painstakingly collect the pests and destroy them.

For most students, the prison seemed to be a singularly unique experience. They were apparently awed by its white shirt and dhoti clad inmates with ‘chest numbers,' the large dormitories, smaller cells, and the depressing gallows.

M. S. Murukesh and D.S. Easwar, students hailing from Karnataka, said the rule-of-thumb farming methods adopted by prisoners were laudable.

Another said that the “well-mannered” prisoners and the verdant flower and vegetable beds seemed to contradict the stereotyped image outsiders had about State-run penitentiaries.

The students helped prisoners sow corn, for the first time, on a specially prepared bed inside the walls.

Superintendent of the Central Prison B. Pradeep Kumar said the prison planned to cultivate mushrooms and ornamental flowers, including orchids and anthurium, on a commercial scale. Outside its walls, the jail had 69 acres to spare for farming. Twenty-nine acres of it was already under cultivation.

Dr. Viswombharan suggested low cost green houses to cultivate exotic vegetables and fruits. He said KAU experts accompanied by students would visit the prison once a month.

Prisoner Naushad has served 12 years of his life sentence. He hoped to be released in 2014. He said watering plants, tilling soil, removing weeds, harvesting the yield, and preparing new beds helped him forget for a few hours the despair of being locked away from the rest of the world. It seemed then that there was much truth in the Chinese adage ‘He who plants a garden plants happiness.'